Dramatik: The Great Not-So-White North

The Great Not-So-White North

Dramatik: To achieve peace, address poverty
Photo: Éric Desabrais

Hip-hop artist Dramatik sees music and expression as ways to begin easing cultural tension in Montreal North

Few Montreal hip-hop artists have had such a wide-ranging impact as Dramatik. As a founder of iconic, socially conscious Montreal Haitian hip-hop collective Muzion, Dramatik has collaborated with international celebrities like Wyclef Jean and rapped about Montreal North to the world through hit tracks like La Vi ti nèg.

Dramatik’s deeply conscious tone is again present on his recently released solo album, La Boîte noire, and new hit single, L’Oubli, which focus on exclusion, racism and police brutality in Montreal North a year after the police shooting of Fredy Villanueva.

Dramatik’s music and his community work with youth group Montréal-Nord Républik touch on issues that shape the lives of immigrant youth. But more recently he has also made Haiti a priority, participating in numerous events to help raise funds for the earthquake-ravaged country, including the upcoming Artists for Haiti II benefit concert, which takes place at Café Campus on March 31.

Hour Racial profiling and police violence are central to the political debate swirling around the inquest into the death of 18-year-old immigrant Fredy Villanueva, and they are also foundational issues addressed in politically conscious hip-hop. Can you talk about what’s been going on in your neighbourhood lately?

Dramatik Poverty has consequences. People who are marginalized are tense, and [Montreal] police only create more tension. To achieve social peace in Montreal North, we need to address the root causes of poverty and social exclusion.

Today the government is cutting funding to the cornerstones of our communities, like gyms and community centres. So many kids are dropping out of school today in Quebec because most high schools aren’t a place for them to develop in positive ways. Youth are losing their ability to express themselves in positive ways in community spaces. At school, youth are expected to sit tight and listen but not express themselves – this creates bad energy. Youth get frustrated at school, so they need community spaces to express themselves and create positive projects, both artistic and athletic.

Mainstream U.S. hip-hop culture says that you can make money quick, but this is a false message and also dangerous. Mainstream hip-hop music doesn’t encourage hip-hop youth to understand that you need to work hard to build yourself.

Hour The video for your song L’Oubli, about Montreal North, has enjoyed success in Quebec in recent weeks. What message are you trying to send about Montreal North?

Dramatik L’Oubli shows the socio-economic divide in our own city, between downtown and Montreal North, while showing that Montreal North isn’t a bad place.

L’Oubli is a conscious contrast to other hip-hop videos that always show communities that are broken and poor. My video doesn’t show all the stereotypes of the hood, but the beauty of my neighbourhood in struggle. It’s a stereotype hood, but it’s a real and vibrant community. It shows that people still have dreams and hopes, that it is possible for us to reach our dreams despite all the obstacles in the way for the youth in our community.

Hour How did you begin rapping in Montreal North?

Dramatik I’ve had difficulties in my own life, and my own journey, which started in Montreal North. My own hope and belief carried me forward. I started rapping in the late 1980s and even today it feels like a privilege to take the microphone and represent my community.

Hour Has Montreal North changed since the shooting of Fredy Villanueva?

Dramatik For a long time there has been tension between the people of Montreal North and the police force. Villanueva’s shooting just broke it open for many people across the city.

The way that the police parade around in the neighbourhood with clubs on their hip, with guns on their belt, puts out a vibe that the police have total power and can do whatever they want, although they are actually supposed to serve the community. Even when driving in Montreal North, the police will always give you looks that are humiliating. When they drive by, there is a constant tension; you are wondering all the time if you are going to get pulled over.

Hour Why do you support grassroots groups like Montréal-Nord Républik?

Dramatik Rights were never given, they were always won through people power. Montréal-Nord Républik is a solid community group calling out police abuses and working to build community in Montreal North.

Today we have more rights than during other periods in history, but it’s necessary to continue our struggle. Slavery may be over, but we still need to fight for total equality, especially as Haitians and as immigrants, because our communities face many injustices [and are targeted by] authorities and police.

Hour What are your thoughts about contemporary socially conscious hip-hop culture in Montreal?

Dramatik Hip-hop has the power to bring people together, in Montreal and everywhere. In hip-hop there is solidarity between people from all cultures, because we share hip-hop as a common culture, a collective voice. Hip-hop is a symbol of peace today in the world.

Hip-hop is a tool to support struggles for justice. Artists like Public Enemy are a big inspiration for my own work. So much hip-hop is commercial, and if you speak about social justice struggles as an artist you are often marginalized, although there is a shift happening again towards conscious hip-hop. Hip-hop is a medium for a message. If it wasn’t hip-hop for me it would be another medium – blogs or books probably.

Hour Recently you performed at different solidarity events for Haiti in Montreal. Could you share your thoughts on the wave of artist benefit concerts and also how you felt as a Haitian artist in Montreal when the quake hit?

Dramatik I felt crazy when the earthquake happened, the crisis hit deep inside my heart. Haiti is my roots, it is the country of my grandparents, the situation in Haiti touched me deeply. It’s hard to put into words.

It was so important that so many mobilized – actually it became a human crisis, not only a Haitian crisis. The climate is changing, the world is changing, and many disasters will happen very soon.

Hour Where do you hope to see your music go in coming years?

Dramatik I hope to write books or make films that embody the same feeling as my music. Work that carries the same message found in my hip-hop music. I hope that my art makes people think, makes people react. I want to make people feel passionate and wonder about the world around us. My art is a medium to make people question and dream.

In the fast-moving context of the iPod generation, I want people to slow down to listen to the message, to really listen to the music, to learn about all the untold realities in our society, say in Montreal North. Not to skip to the last track, but to tune-in, listen and reflect.

W/ Vox Sambou and Moe Clark
At Café Campus (57 Prince Arthur E.), March 31
Info: http://dramatik.ca

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